Friday, August 5, 2011

Voted Off The Island?

By arena standards, it is a dinosaur.

Opened in 1972, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York is showing its age. Armed with only 32 luxury suites, a narrow concourse and one of the smallest seating capacities in the National Hockey League, New York Islanders officials claim that the building is hindering efforts to field a competitive hockey club.

Questions surround the future of Nassau Coliseum

They want a new, state-of-the-art that the Islanders can comfortably call home until 2045. This week, however, Nassau County residents put a wrinkle in that down a proposal that would publicly fund the new arena. It is the latest hurdle in a more-than-decade-long saga to construct a new building for the Islanders.

Without a new Coliseum, the Islanders' future is anything but assured. Their lease at the current Coliseum expires in 2015...and owner Charles Wang has publicly stated that the team will not play there once the time is up.

Artist's rendering of a new Nassau Coliseum

While Wang issued a statement this week indicating that he remains committed to staying on Long Island, other options do exist. A new arena under construction in Brooklyn for the NBA's Nets franchise could house hockey as well. Another New York City borough, Queens, has expressed interest in building an arena for the Islanders. Or, once the lease expires, the Islanders could opt out of the New York area altogether.

It is that final possibility which scares Islanders' fans the most. The franchise has suffered through instability since the mid-1990s, both on- and off-the-ice. Despite the roller coaster ride, the fan base doesn't want it to end altogether. Those who have stuck with the team through the tough times want to be around as the Islanders begin a run of success once again.

Islanders fans hope their team can stick around for another 40 years

Without the guarantee of a new arena, however, the question will continue to linger in both players' and fans' minds...what happens after the 2014-15 season? When I attend an Islanders' game during the next couple of years, it will be part-game, the past, present and future all converge in my thoughts.


My last trip to Nassau Coliseum was on February 26th, 2011...a chilly Saturday night in Uniondale. The Islanders were struggling through their 4th consecutive non-playoff season, entering the game with a 23-31-8 record. Their opponent, the Washington Capitals, were hovering near the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a 32-20-10 mark.

The Capitals and Islanders were at opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings

Despite the on-paper mismatch, the fans came out in droves...partly to watch the Caps' superstar forward, Alex Ovechkin, in action. Before the game, a large crowd gathered on the Washington side of the rink during watch a player who -- at only 25-years-old -- had amassed nearly 300 goals in his NHL career.

Capitals' star forward Alex Ovechkin takes a shot during warm-ups

Although the Islanders were the decided underdog, they took the game to the Capitals in the early stages. Perhaps they were energized by the sold-out crowd of 16,250 -- the first sellout of the season at Nassau Coliseum. The Isles peppered Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth with numerous shots, but the 22-year-old goalie was up to the task.

Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth made some big saves in the 1st period

Midway through the 1st period, the Isles broke through. Forward Kyle Okposo carried the puck into the high slot, firing a wrist shot that eluded the traffic in front of Neuvirth, as well as the goalie himself. As the puck kissed the back of the net, Islanders' fans in attendance leapt to their feet and cheered. New York had grabbed a 1-0 lead...and carried it into the 1st intermission.

Kyle Okposo's wrister gave the Isles a 1-0 lead

Wandering the Coliseum concourse in-between periods, it becomes easy to see why the Islanders want a new building. Cramped walkways lead to pedestrian congestion, making it tough to visit with friends in other parts of the arena. Lines for the bathrooms and concession stands are long, taking the entire intermission (and sometimes longer) to dissipate. The inconvenience to fans may discourage some people from returning to the Coliseum...costing the Islanders revenue and hurting future attendance numbers.

The Nassau Coliseum concourse gets crowded -- especially when there's a sell-out

Following the 17-minute break, the Islanders added to their lead in the first minute of the 2nd period. Before some fans had even returned to their seats, a harmless-looking shot by defenseman Travis Hamonic found its way past the Islanders a 2-0 advantage.

Travis Hamonic's goal put the Islanders ahead 2-0

Looking to provide a spark for his team, Capitals' forward Matt Hendricks stepped up the physical play...dropping the gloves with Islanders' forward (and fighting expert) Zenon Konopka. As I looked on from nearby Section 208, the packed Coliseum screamed in delight at every punch that was thrown.

Zenon Konopka and Matt Hendricks mix it up in the 2nd period

After the fisticuffs, the Islanders continued their assault on the Capitals' defense. At one point in the 2nd period, the Isles had outshot Washington by a 19-9 margin for the game. Neuvirth was keeping the game within could the offensively-gifted Capitals make a comeback?

A sold-out Nassau Coliseum in late February

It didn't take long for that question to be answered. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the 2nd period, forward Brooks Laich scored his 13th goal of the season...beating Isles' goalie Al Montoya to cut the Washington deficit in half.

The Capitals celebrate Brooks Laich's 2nd period goal

The score would remain 2-1 through the end of the 2nd period. For those who showed up at the Coliseum to see Alex Ovechkin pad his season stats, they were disappointed to this point. The Islanders' defenders had kept the explosive left winger to the perimeter of the offensive zone, limiting his scoring opportunities.

Ovechkin takes a shot from the left wing

During the 2nd intermission, I looked around the Coliseum rafters and soaked in the Islanders' history.

Throughout the early 1980s, the Islanders were the envy of the National Hockey League. Four consecutive Stanley Cups, a collection of Hall-of-Fame players, a legendary coach, a Hall-of-Fame general manager. At one point, the Islanders had won an unprecedented 19 straight playoff series. Even as the dynasty faded in the mid-to-late '80s, the Islanders still fielded competitive teams...capturing Patrick Division titles in 1983-84 and 1987-88.

The Islanders were once one of the great dynasties in NHL history

The Islanders' fan base is getting antsy. No division championships since playoff series wins since playoff appearances since 2007...and now, there are questions about the team's long-term future.

The Islanders have a rich history -- but questions remain about the future

As the 3rd period got underway, the Capitals quickly added to Islanders fans' frustrations. With 17:36 remaining in regulation, forward Mike Knuble's 15th goal made it a 2-2 game. Then, just over three minutes later, forward Alexander Semin broke the tie...with an assist from Ovechkin.

The Capitals scored two goals early in the 3rd period to take the lead

Now faced with a 3-2 deficit, the Islanders had to find the offensive rhythm that they enjoyed during the first half of the game. Those players dressed in blue, orange and white regained their focus...selling out their bodies to try and score the equalizer...but it was all for naught. Neuvirth stopped 29 of the 31 Islanders' shots for the game, and after trailing 2-0 in the early 2nd period, Washington answered with 3 goals of their own...then held on for a 3-2 victory.

Close, but no cigar for the Islanders

After the game, I sat and waited as the Coliseum emptied, looking around at the dejected Islanders' fans...and those dressed in Caps' jerseys who had smiles on their faces. Yes, I was disappointed that the Isles didn't win...but I would be much more heartbroken if I had no Islanders' games to attend at all.

When a team's future is in question, it puts individual games in perspective

That's the most disconcerting thing about this week's failed referendum in Nassau County -- the great unknown. A couple years ago, a proposal was made to privately finance a new Nassau Coliseum -- the ill-fated Lighthouse Project. Now, a proposal to publicly fund the new arena has come-and-gone. What other options are there?

Throughout Nassau Coliseum's interior and exterior, there are signs that boldly declare "We're All Islanders." But for how long?

Will this statement be made beyond 2015?

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